"And this is where they shot the pee-pee scene," Edmond Niemerz tells 100 tourists through his portable amplifier on a bitterly cold Saturday afternoon in Bergues, northeast France. Niemerz, a volunteer tour guide, then steps aside to let his charges snap photos where the canal meanders to the ramparts. They giggle as they recall punch lines from the smash hit "Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis," the source of the "pee-pee scene" in question. Some folks also tote souvenir doormats, or 15-euro replicas of the town belfry. Already the town has lost two of its "Bergues" road signs to souvenir hunters. "Please leave the signs, because they cost 400 euros each," Niemerz asks. Four times a week the 10th-century town of 4,306 sees tourists swarm through its narrow streets for the Ch'ti Tour. "These are waves. We're expecting the tsunami in June," Niemerz tells NEWSWEEK.
Such is the call of Ch'timania. On Monday "Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis" became France's biggest French-made box-office hit since World War II, passing "La Grande Vadrouille," a 1966 comedy that held the record for four decades. With 17.4 million tickets sold in just six weeks, the little-film-that-could may yet sink the all-time top draw, "Titanic," which drew 20.7 million moviegoers to French cinemas in 1998. To put those numbers in perspective, the population of France is 64 million. And 2001's worldwide French superhit "Amélie" sold only 8.5 million tickets at home. "Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis" made March a record month for the French box office. In midsize towns across the country, moviehouse managers tell of elderly customers asking about seat numbers or for places in the orchestra section, proof that this film is drawing people who haven't been to a movie in decades.
Not bad for an 11 million-euro ($17.5 million) comedy in which many of the jokes play off an obscure language called Ch'ti, which is spoken only in northern France, near the Belgian border. The fish-out-of-water story stars Kad Merad as a postmaster from Provence who, desperate to score a transfer to the Mediterranean coast, gets caught faking a handicap. His penance is a two-year posting in the rainy north, where drink and misery cut lives short and frostbite claims toes, he's told. But once in Bergues, near the North Sea, he learns to love the tough but affable northerners, or Ch'tis. He picks up some dialect and keeps up the misery act only to keep his Côte d'Azur wife at bay. The film turns into a riotous buddy picture, with Merad alongside actor-director Dany Boon's postman. At one point a drunken Merad and Boon share a pee into Bergues's canal. Hence the tourist attraction.
In the birthplace of cinema—not to mention cineastes—such unlikely triumph is not spared sociological analysis. Editorialists muse that the success of a feel-good film so devoid of flash is the people's revenge against "bling," as personified by President Nicolas Sarkozy's idiosyncratic flamboyance. Others wax lyrical about how anxious times make successes of films with soothing themes. Some marvel at the resilience of the people of the north, an industrial region once browbeaten by globalization that has bounced back by taking advantage of its position as a pivot of Europe, between Brussels, Paris, and the mouth of the Channel Tunnel.
"In this big global bazaar, where only basic products made cheaply in outsourced workshops were meant to survive, 'Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis' shows us the strength and the asset it is to have mastered one's identity," wrote the economic historian Jacques Marseille in the French weekly Le Point. "Contrary to a sadly perpetuated legend, globalization did not kill identities but reinforce them."
Indeed, in Bergues, in the shadow of Europe's capital, that argument rings all the more true. Director Boon, who was born and raised in nearby Armentières, considers himself Ch'ti. He selected picturesque Bergues, where his grandmother's cousin was the belfry's carillon player for 65 years, for his film. But despite the "Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis" movie posters and autographed glossy pictures in the shop windows, Bergues considers itself part of Western Flanders, and older people on the market square are known to converse in Flemish, not Ch'ti. While they might seem out of place in the new tourists' photos, some residents fly the yellow flags of the Lion of Flanders from their redbrick row houses.
On Saturday, Dominique Dubart, 56, and her husband drove to Bergues from Lille for the Ch'ti Tour. Dubart is "the daughter and granddaughter of Ch'tis," she says proudly. She saw the film the day after its late-February regional debut in Lille, after reserving her seats eight days ahead. She says "Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis" is part of a trend in recent decades to "rehabilitate" the north in people's minds, even for Ch'tis themselves. The region, she says, long suffered from stereotypes. Recently Paris-supporting louts at a French league cup soccer match between Paris and Lens, a northern team, sparked a national outcry with a banner taunting, "Pedophiles, Unemployed, and Inbreds: Welcome to the land of the Ch'tis."
As Dubart tells it, Ch'tis long thought of their ancestral language as low-class, although in recent years, just as Europe has grown, the Ch'ti language has seen a minirevival, with books teaching it and even theater performances in Ch'ti. That's where the movie fits in, she says. "My grandfather spoke Ch'ti. When we were little my parents were ashamed of it, so we weren't allowed to imitate him," says Dubart. With the "Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis" phenomenon, she says, "now my kids want to learn it."
As the film breaks records and sets its sights on "Titanic," the regional Voix du Nord newspaper is encouraging its readers to see the film again, holding up a local who's been 17 times as an example. Of course, there will always be skeptics. On a top Internet film forum debate is rife over whether the success is deserved. One user makes a technical argument noting that the population of France was smaller in 1966, when "La Grande Vadrouille" set the record, and the fact that the three-hour-plus running time of "Titanic" limited the number of screenings possible per day back in 1998.
But never mind Internet forums. Small towns will always have their skeptics. At the Café du Nord in Bergues, on the town square near the belfry, patrons banter with the barmaid about the town's newfound celebrity, the new tourists and all the media attention. Everyone's a critic. "I'm not Flemish. I'm Ch'ti. But I didn't laugh from start to finish," one woman maintains. "I laughed once in a while." Tough crowd. Must have missed the pee-pee scene.